Steel boats are immensely strong and don't break if you hit things - like coral or rocks. Unless they are well done they can be ugly, and they need careful maintenance. I always think of hard chines and rust streaks when I think of steel boats. You have to be careful with siting and swinging the compass too. And the hull must be well lined to avoid condensation. When they are well built they can be as good looking as any boat.
I'm having a custom 16m boat built in steel at the moment.
My main reasons for steel were durability and strength.
The boat is semi-displacement with a cruising speed of 12-14 knots which is perfect for me. If you want to go faster then I'd look at fibreglass as the weight penalty will cause higher fuel consumption with steel.
My rough calculations show that it would take 750hp to get my boat to go to 17knots whereas you could get well over 20 with a fibreglass hull.
For "serious" sailing there is no contest. With upwards of 10,000 containers lost every year, coral reefs and rocks in the wrong places (your GPS is more accurate than many charts), angry whales and goodness knows what else floating around out there, it has to be steel every time. You will probably find that steel is cheaper too. Steel boats do not necessarily have to have "hard chines and rusty streaks" - mine is round bilged and rusty streaks usually mean that short cuts or economies have been made in protecting the hull. Wherever you are based there will be good steel boatbuilders and there will be cowboys, the most expensive are not necessarily the best. Do your homework properly and you should be able to get a steel boat that is just as good looking as, stronger and cheaper than a glassfibre boat.
I have had a steel yacht for the last ten years. Prior to that I had a smaller Fiberglass yacht. I would always go for fibre if the sailing you are going to do were relatively local rather than long distance. I sail mine both locally in the south of England and also do quite a bit of long distance sailing.
It does not get mentioned very often but the additional weight of steel gives a much smoother passage (depends on size of course) and is much more stable in heavy seas because of the extra weight. You can hit a rock and get away with it (I have) and you can almost anywhere in the world find a welder (cowboy or otherwise) who can weld on a plate to get you home. Strangely enough its easier to work on a steel hull as you can have a portion cut out and replaced (I am having that done in the next couple of months) and its a simple bit of welding without losing the strength of the hull. You can't do that in Fibre with losing hull strength.
It’s all in one word - Corrosion.
There are often sailing differences as a much heavier hull handles differently and it you hit something its more there problem than yours except the insurance premium. I have not hit any one else but have been hit by a fiberglass yacht and they had the bigger problem.
Rust is the biggest problem of all. If you are having a yacht built the most important two things that need to be supervised are the shotblasting of the hull inside and outside and the priming of the hull and painting. If these two things are not done correctly you will always be fighting rust. The maintenance on a steel hull is much higher than on fiberglass but a lot of it stems from how well the metal is prepared initially. There are a few other things that are of very high importance such as insulation of all electrical systems including the shore earth from the hull. Mixing metals inevitably magnifies the rust and corrosion problems and this is an area to watch most carefully. Steel is not the same as stainless steel and on a yacht you mix aluminum with brass, Bronze and a variety of other things. Each of these areas has to be very carefully planned.
It is crucial to go to a builder who regularly builds in steel as there are things some yards do that should not be done on a steel yacht such as create closed box sections - problems waiting to happen.
I personally think you can’t beat steel if it is done properly with experience. If it is not done properly it’s a minefield of repair work.
Having had the yacht for 10 years built by a builder who was not good at the preparation (since deservedly gone bust) I find I now know more than most of the yards in the area so find that I have to continually make them aware of what not to do on a steel yacht that you can get away with on plastic. I also find that the detail with which you have to take care is much more than you need to on a plastic yacht. One square millimeter of exposed steel can make one heck of a mess over a 6 month period and takes a lot of paint off.
If you do go down the route of a steel yacht I would be happy to provide some of my experiences - in fact I suppose I should write an article on it one day
I own a steel Dutch built suncoast 20 years old, for 6 years. I wouldn`t swop it for anything. With steel what you see 2is what you get.
A well built and designed steel boat is well worth it. Rust is no more than minimum and can be well looked after.